Whenever a group of persons are placed into a common environment there is almost always a bonding experience that occurs. This was certainly true in the Seminary, and Sal’s life was certainly enhanced by so many of his fellow seminarians. In a very short period of time total strangers became a band of brothers who stood side by side in common cause. One of his closest friends was the ever zany Rocco Constantino a former politician in Bellville, New Jersey.Rocco was the consummate professional who never missed a funeral,a party or an opportunity to kiss a baby.
Rocco had a personality that could charm the devil himself ,and his outrageous behavior brought laughter and acceptance from everyone. Once while on vacation at the Jersey Shore he and seven seminarians entered a Pizzeria. Without hesitation Rocco marched into the kitchen and said to the chef”Hey shorty start making pizzas and don’t stop till I tell you”. The chef roared with laughter. If Sal had said that he would probably be running down the boardwalk avoiding a knife wielding chef.
On another occasion early in the morning he leaned out his window at the seminary and shouted to the local baker delivery man that he and others were being held hostage
and would he please call the state police. Truly a remarkable character with a heart of gold. Sal learned much about life and people from him.
Joseph Michael Ryan was perhaps the brightest and most well-read person Sal had met in his life .Joseph had a library of over a thousand books.. He was not only a friend to Sal ,but a primary mentor. He had a range of interest that went beyond what seminarians were supposed to be reading ,and had the uncanny ability to teach without ever being patronizing or pedantic. Sal ‘s level of topics that were outside the scope of the seminary curriculum was widened and developed through Joe’s loving guidance.
Jim Herbert was another luminary that opened Sal’s mind plus he was one of the funniest
guys in the seminary. He once said that his brother had married a wealthy woman who was into thorougbread horses. He told me my brother is a great guy but out of his league with that crowd. Until he met her he thought every horse had a cop on it.Sal was fortunate to have his first parish assignment in the second summer with Jim.It was in a poor section of Newark and their job was basically to run a camp for ten year olds.Jim fractured Sal with his making shoe boxes into altars during arts and crafts. He in a moment of great frustration said” If I make one more popsicle cross I make become a serial killer.”
If you weren’t organized detailed person that enjoyed the sameness of a rigid schedule than the seminary would’ve been nirvana. However, if you had a personality like Sal’s the rigid schedule could at times be pulverizing. Sal found that one of the ways to survive the sameness of the seminary was to have short-term goals with regard to making it to the next vacation. He loved the camaraderie of his friends, and never quite took his eyes off the prize at the end of the process. All the requirements that at times seemed tedious would lead to a path of service to others. With very few exceptions many of the courses in philosophy and theology were not the primary subjects of Sal’s interest but through the guidance of some of the older seminarians like Joseph Ryan he had become more and more aware of the need to widen his scope of intellectual pursuits. On many occasions during some of the free time Sal would seek out Joseph and a great deal of the learning that occurred was not in the classroom .
Time has a way of moving quickly, and it was becoming more apparent that Sal had not only survived the first three years of seminary life but he was now approaching the strong possibility that ordination was within reach. This goal would seem so far away for years but now encountered another issue and that was the one of doubt. it was one thing to be a seminarian where there was always a realization that in any given moment you could walk out the door with the stark reality that ordination would change everything. He had heard over and over from faculty members that doubt was part and parcel of the route to the priesthood ,but when he assessed himself against so many of his classmates he almost always came to the conclusion that he might be the least religious person in his class.There were friends and acquaintances who were such marvelous human beings that even though he had a very healthy self-image, he thought they were so much more profoundly prepared to be priests than he was.
This ever residing thought became more than a casual conflict when Bill Meade who was two years ahead of Sal left the seminary just before he was to take the major step of becoming a deacon Bill was brilliant,he also possessed a consistent level of kindness towards others. in addition he was not only a great athlete but a poet and an excellent public speaker. if you were to develop the poster man for the archdiocese of Newark Sal’s first choice would’ve been Bill. When Bill left the seminary Sal’s immediate reaction was if someone as worthy as he leaves what am I doing in this place.? For days Sal struggled with the fact that Bill had left and it was compounded when a week later one of his closest friends Mike Keating also decided to leave. Mike was a graduate of Holy Cross and one of the funniest people as well as a real intellectual . Michael had a lot of the Joseph Ryan’s characteristics since that he was not entirely focused on philosophy and theology but realized that there was a greater world out there.As a history major Mike had a fascinating opinion on almost everything. Two tremendous human beings that had been a profound influence on Sal’s life and all of a sudden they were gone and this was more than a casual doubt ;it created a real crisis in his life.
One night during study hall Sal almost came to the conclusion that it was time to leave the seminary. He was not at all influenced by the fact that many people had come from great skepticism to the belief that he would soon be ordained a priest. . He could no longer keep this to himself, and decided that he probably ought to give it one more shot and discuss what was his impending decision with the spiritual adviser. Study hall was a period of time where one was not allowed to leave the room, but there were exceptions to this rule and one of them was that any time you could go in spend time with your spiritual adviser. Sal left his room walked to a spiritual adviser’s room and knocking on the door entered.For the next two hours he shared not only his doubts put the conclusion that he thought it was best that he leave the seminary and return to his home in Jersey City. The spiritual adviser was a warm and friendly priest who had spent a good portion of his priesthood in the parish . He had been at the seminary for six years and had a terrific reputation with all of the seminarians.
After Sal’s complete catharsis the spiritual adviser began to share the fact that he had never met a seminarian who had not experienced significant doubts along the way. He confided that his own route to the priesthood he had almost quit on many occasions. This was not only true for him but it was true for people who were far more saintly. One of the samples he gave was that Camillus DeLllis had serious doubts and yet prayed his way through it ,and became a wonderful priest. Sal had never heard of Camillus and his initial reaction was that he was probably an upperclassman. He also thought he was certainly not from Jersey City because with that name he would have had 85 beatings before the sixth grade. For some reason he did not ask if he could speak to: Camillus and that was a good thing because he found out that the was a saint who lived in the Middle Ages. Somehow that brought a smile to Sal and at the end of this intense conversation he had reassessed and thought that he would stay at least a little while longer.